"You gotta dig and grind when you don't have your best stuff," says one of the most competitive human beings on the planet. And when he says dig and grind he means just that; keep pushing forward no matter what.
It's really no surprise he thinks that way. Growing up with a father who was a champion roller skater, a winning Golden Gloves boxer and a successful racehorse trainer, there wasn't much of a choice. Competition is all he's ever known. It was a way of life when he was a kid, and it hasn't changed much since then.
As an 8-year-old, Kevin Wirth displayed a steadfast determination to skate. He practiced every day so he could win a national championship at age 9.
In his middle-teens he turned toward the horses. Every day he rode until he could time fractions in his head to within one-fifth of a second. After experiencing a growth spurt he had difficulty keeping his weight down. So, he did the only thing that made sense to him — ate one meal and drank four glasses of water a day for weeks at a time.
Finally, he realized his dream: a ride in the 1981 Kentucky Derby. Mythical Ruler didn't win that day but Wirth had made a point. He was competing at the very top of the industry.
An injury cut his riding career short. After a stint as an equine dentist — a profession he continued to practice until just a couple of years ago — he turned to professional bass angling. His approach to fishing wasn't any different than the rest of his life.
"Once I decided I was serious, I sold my new car and bought a new boat … and towed it all over the country with a $700 Pontiac. I slept in that car many a night. You have to give up something if you want something."
His success with BASS hasn't been overnight. He's had his share of ups and downs. No matter, he continues to dig and grind. Despite not winning a major tournament since 1994, he's managed to secure a spot in the Bassmaster Classic nine times, earn a good living and develop a solid relationship with Early Times, one of the best nonendemic sponsors in the business.
The story of his fishing career begins — and ends — with hard work. Wirth understands there's no free lunch. He works hard at everything he does, no matter what. He did it as a kid on his skates. He did it as a jockey. He does it as a professional bass angler.
His tournament preparation is well-known and respected among his fellow anglers. It starts well before daylight and lasts until well after dark. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses. He competes to his strengths and practices on his weaknesses.
Over the years he's learned to deal with the ups and downs of competitive fishing.
"Everybody goes through down times and depressions. You deal with them and can't let them get the better of you. It's a part of the business. If you don't keep your head right, they'll destroy you."
One technique he uses to keep his head right is to "look long, look short." When things aren't going well he looks long, toward the future. "It helps keep your mind off the immediate problems and gives you something to work toward … and keeps you motivated."
On the other hand, when his career is going well he looks short. "It keeps you up, going strong … and makes you feel good about yourself."
He's also learned not to second-guess himself, something that was a problem early in his career. "You make decisions based on current conditions and what you think or feel at the time. Looking back doesn't help; it makes things worse. Tomorrow is another day ... forget about it ... go on."
His attitude, along with a willingness to pay any price, makes him one of the fiercest competitors on the tour. In his mind it only makes sense to do the things he does. After all, "How else can you win?" he asks rhetorically.
Never satisfied, Wirth wants to compete on the Senior PGA Tour when his fishing days are over. "It would make my life complete," he says.
RECOGNIZING THE GREATS
A lot of competitive men, especially professional athletes, are quick to criticize and slow to praise. Not so with Wirth.
When he talks about professional bass fishing at its highest levels, he invariably turns the conversation toward Kevin VanDam. "His accomplishments on the water are every bit as impressive as those of Tiger Woods on the golf course. Kevin doesn't get nearly the recognition and respect he's earned and deserves. What he's done is amazing," is a common Wirth quote.
That attitude continues even when he talks about finishing second at Kentucky Lake in the 2006 Bluegrass Brawl. Wirth wanted that one. It was on his home water and in the backyard of his biggest sponsor, Early Times. Despite his disappointment, however, he was gracious and gave credit where credit was due. "(Morizo) Shimizu earned it. He won the tournament. His fish weighed more than mine."
Now, when some anglers say those things they are only reciting platitudes, there's no real meaning to them. But with Wirth it's different; the words have a different tone. He means what he's saying. That's because this man is about competition. He respects others who are equally competitive.
Of course he wants to win and elevate himself within the sport of professional bass angling. But he wants that because of his preparation, his skill, his winning attitude. He doesn't want it at the expense of anyone else. He never tries to make himself big by making others small. That wouldn't be his style.
CONFIDENCE IS A GREAT THING
If you're an amateur angler wanting some advice from Wirth, you might be surprised; not at what you do hear, but at what you don't hear. There'll be no talk about where to fish or what lure to throw with what rod and reel combination. There will be talk, however, about maintaining a positive mental attitude in your life.
"Confidence is a great thing. When your confidence starts to peak, everything else elevates. Associate with people who are confident and keep a positive mental attitude. Do it everywhere and in everything; at home, at work, with the family, when you're driving down the road. It bleeds over from one thing to another and back and forth. It'll affect every part of your life. Your fishing will naturally get better."
According to Wirth, negativity is much the same. "I don't hang around with negative people.... I don't care what they're negative about. If they're negative, I don't want any part of it. It'll mess you up."
This veteran doesn't think one part of anyone's life is isolated from the other parts.
Everything works together to complete the package. Keep your life positive and the fishing will take care of itself. Believe any differently and you're doomed. Frustration and failure on the water will be your just desserts.
VanDam expresses admiration for Wirth's work ethic and competitive attitude. "He's really become comfortable within his own skin in the last couple of years," notes the legendary BASS professional. Much of Wirth's improvement can be attributed to his knowledge of himself and his ability to use that knowledge to his advantage.
"Kevin will be the first one to tell you he's not the best natural fisherman. He can't drive 20 hours, sleep a couple of hours and go out and fish. That's not him. He knows that and takes it into consideration. He arrives at the tournament site early, studies his maps, gets to know the water and makes the most of his practice time," relays VanDam.
"Then, before the tournament he gets a good night's sleep, gets up early and has breakfast at the local Waffle House. After that he's ready to go. He knows that's what works best for him and he's OK with that, with himself. He doesn't try to be something or somebody he's not. It's all about self-confidence and a positive attitude with him."
VanDam also takes note of Wirth's desire for self-improvement. "I don't want anybody to think he's in a rut when I say he knows what works for him and sticks with it. He's always trying to learn new techniques and get better. It's just that he knows himself. He doesn't try to do something because somebody else is doing it. That's what makes him so tough."
Wirth's life of hard work, intensity and a positive mental attitude isn't lost on his fellow anglers, even one with KVD's credentials.